Tensions High Over City Park in Oceanside : Neighbors Say Noisy Youths Spoiling Oasis
For the last 29 years, Buddy Todd Park has served as a playpen for Robert Hall’s youngsters.
His children and grandchildren have wobbled around on a wooden train and swung from monkey bars at Buddy Todd--the quintessential family park that crowns an Oceanside hilltop.
But these days, especially on weekends, few toddlers can be seen.
Instead, neighbors say, young men--many Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton--cruise their cars along the narrow road that winds through the park, drink beer, blare radios and taunt local residents. And now, they fear, drug use and prostitution have been added to the list of woes.
The unruly behavior has intimidated neighbors, leaving them to lament that Buddy Todd is a family park no more.
‘It’s Really a Mess’
“It’s been a virtual paradise living here all these years,” said Hall, 75, a retired Marine colonel who lives in this neighborhood of modest homes and two-car garages. “But now, it’s really a mess.”
No longer willing to tolerate what they describe as an invasion of Buddy Todd, some residents are asking the City Council to pass an ordinances prohibiting drinking, cruising and parking in the park.
Although council members acknowledge that there is a problem and promise action at their next meeting, Sept. 14, they say such sweeping “Prohibition Era” acts are unlikely.
Mediating this life-style clash between homespun neighbors and weekend cruisers is an exercise in caution, city officials say.
They are concerned that some complaints might have been exaggerated and fear that actions taken will be interpreted as a racist attack: the weekend park users tagged as the troublemakers are predominantly black; the residents are mostly white.
Neighbors deny that their anger over Buddy Todd is racially motivated and insist that they are only fighting to protect their property and tranquility. But encounters between the two groups, during which black youths have allegedly made ethnic slurs against white neighbors, make it evident that racial tensions do exist.
“They come in here playing their radios at 200 decibels, they scatter their trash,” Hall said. “I get up in the morning and pick up their mess. I pick up all the crud--except the condoms. I leave them for the street sweepers.
“This is not a matter of who they are, but what they do,” Hall said. “It is a total lack of consideration . . . ordinary, common, everyday courtesy.”
And that is a refrain repeated by other residents.
“I feel I should be able to walk out any time out onto my front lawn without having to face racial remarks, threats or aggression,” said Robert Johnson, who lives across the street from the park. “Nor should I have to endure or witness people urinating and defecating on my lawn.”
Marines interviewed Saturday said the neighbors have overreacted to isolated incidents and used one word to describe the residents’ attempt to drive out the innocent masses: selfish.
“You got to understand this is a community park for everybody, not just the people in the neighborhood” said Cpl. Michael Williams, 20. “Where else are you supposed to go to kick back and have a good time?”
“Who wants to drive 35 miles to San Diego?” chipped in Staff Sgt. Michael Daniels, 29, as he sipped beer from a can of Olde English. “I’ve been coming here since ’81. This is where all my friends are. We’re not here to cause problems.”
Although news of the neighbors’ tales troubled Staff Sgt. Keith Lofton, he was more disturbed that no one had discussed the complaints directly with the Marines.
“No one came to talk to us,” Lofton, 29, said. “No one even came to us and asked us to turn down our music. They just made their own assumptions and went straight to City Hall. They could have at least given us a chance to tell our side of the story.”
Sparring Over Parks
Secluded parks, like Buddy Todd, which is east of Interstate 5 off California 76, often serve as a stage where entrenched neighborhoods and nomadic youth clash, said Glenn Prentice, Oceanside’s public services director.
Although the clamor of Buddy Todd’s neighbors is being heard for the first time at Oceanside’s City Hall, similar grievances have been voiced in San Diego.
“Just like Buddy Todd, several of our parks--Mt. Soledad, Torrey Pines, Golden Hill and Mission Beach--have a nice perimeter road where you can cruise around,” said George Loveland, San Diego’s park and recreation director. “When you want to get away, turn up the radio, drink under age and avoid scrutiny, these are the places to go. And sometimes they get out of hand.”
Unfortunately, Loveland says, this common problem lacks a common cure. San Diego officials occasionally boost up police patrols to gain temporary relief, but have avoided no-drinking ordinances as a panacea.
Enforcing such city laws becomes a cumbersome task itself, Loveland said, and diverts police attention from more serious crimes.
Last summer when similar complaints surfaced, Oceanside officials temporarily increased police enforcement and set stricter parking regulations to ease congestion. Gates also have been placed at the entrance to Buddy Todd, closing it after the sun goes down.
Although helpful at the time, the effect of such actions has not lasted, neighbors say. In fact, they say, things have never been worse.
Some Officials Skeptical
But some city officials, including Prentice, are skeptical.
“I’m not a resident, and I’m not there all the time, but, from what I’ve seen, I don’t see as much of a problem,” said Prentice, who is preparing a report about the park for the upcoming council meeting.
“What you have is lots of young kids in the park. Some of them do a little bit of drinking,” Prentice said. “Basically, they are there to be seen. Some of the music is loud, but it’s not to the extreme.”
Neighbors say they have found evidence of illegal activity--syringes and other drug paraphernalia--to support their grievances. Johnson, who lives on Mesa Drive, adds, “I’ve seen prostitutes solicit right in front of my house.”
Such acts, however, remain to be seen by police.
“At this stage we have no data to support that there is rampant drug use or prostitution going on in the park,” said acting Police Chief Michael Shirley, who has sent undercover officers to evaluate the situation at Buddy Todd.
“Drugs are so pervasive in our community, I’m sure there’s some usage at the park,” Shirley said. “But it sure isn’t a shooting gallery.”
The department cannot patrol Buddy Todd routinely and will respond on an “as needed basis,” Shirley said.
But neighbors like Donna McGinty define “as needed” as all the time.
McGinty says she is “afraid this matter is just going to be pooh-poohed away” by politicians and police.
Unless strong action is taken, McGinty warns, the serene park environment will be permanently destroyed.
Night and Day
Monday through Friday, the park is used by the neighborhood. During the week, children’s laughter is often the only sound that can be heard through the 19-acre park.
But on weekends, especially late in the afternoon, neighbors claim, powerful car stereo systems and large radios send out booming waves of sound, sometimes to houses more than two blocks away.
“It gets so bad at times that, even with all the windows and doors closed, I can’t hear the TV unless I turn up the volume,” said Sue McShane, who lives on the edge of the park.
McShane, who used to walk through Buddy Todd as part of a daily regimen, now avoids the park on weekends. “When I went through, I would get lots of lewd comments and catcalls. I’m scared.”
Staff Sgt. Daniels and his buddies said that they go to the park to meet new people, preferably members of the opposite sex.
“Sure, we’re here to look at attractive women,” Daniels said. “But we’re just not going to grab a woman. You get put in jail for doing things like that.”
Staying out of prison is a high priority for career-conscious Marines, the men at Buddy Todd Park said. For the most part, the Marines said, they go to the park to showcase their well-equipped cars.
“Look, if we’re blasting pictures off your wall, you got a reason to be upset,” said Williams, who owns a 1988 Camaro, equipped with a 300-watt stereo system. “But it’s rare when we park near somebody’s home. We’re in the middle of the park, away from everybody. I don’t understand what the problem is.”
Had to Move
On a separate occasion, a group of young black men hurled racial epithets at a Times reporter and photographer who were visiting the park. The two were forced to move from a picnic table to continue their conversation, which ended abruptly when a young man placed his booming radio at their table.
Often, neighbors say, young drivers honk their car horns while cruising slowly through the park and then leave the wooded enclave with tires screeching. Cars race along Mesa Drive, which forms the park’s southern boundary, knocking over mailboxes and running over lawns, they say.
Johnson, the father of three little boys, wants alcohol prohibited in the park and favors banning cars from Buddy Todd. He also wants parking limited to the park’s periphery.
Such comprehensive bans, however, would severely and unjustly restrict park use, said Councilman Sam Williamson.
“Buddy Todd Park runs along Mesa Drive, which is a major thoroughfare,” Williamson said. “That invites people from all over to come to the park. If you allowed no parking at all, in essence you are saying that the only people who can use the park are the ones who can walk to it. And that’s not right.”
Last year, curbs were built along the one-way park road to prevent people from driving their cars on the grass. And parking was banned on one side of the road.
Williamson favors strengthening the no-parking restriction by making that side of the road a fire lane, adding the power to tow away vehicles.
“Right now, there’s no-parking, but the only thing we can do is give them a citation,” Williamson said. “So big deal, somebody gets a $14 ticket. That’s not bad for all-day parking privileges. But, if you threaten to tow them away, I’m sure it will serve as a much tougher deterrent.”
Williamson predicts that keeping one lane open will allow cars to pass stopped vehicles, easing park congestion and preventing a back flow of cars onto Mesa Drive.
But Williamson and Prentice, the public services director, seem reluctant to take any further action.
Each of the solutions proposed by the neighbors has its own share of problems, Prentice said. For example, he said, a no-drinking ordinance raises the question: Do you punish the masses for crimes committed by the few? And prohibiting parking near the park would spill cars onto neighborhood streets, aggravating an already tense situation.
Meanwhile, the Marines--staying true to form--have no plans to retreat.
“We’re not depriving anybody from coming down to the park,” said Staff Sgt. Lofton. “If people are uncomfortable about coming down here because our cultural behavior is different from theirs . . . if they can’t deal with that, that’s their problem, not ours. I don’t know why they’re scared of us. We’re not going to burn down their house. We’re no thugs.”
But neighbors like Hall, the retired colonel, said he plans to stay put at home until a solution is found.
“I have a new angel now,” said Hall about his 10-month-old, great-granddaughter, Heidi. “I would love to take her over to the park. But, Lord, no, I wouldn’t do that now. Things have changed.”